Local Warming

Cathryn Drake at the 18th Art-Athina

Left: Installation view of work by Pavlos Tsakonas. Right: Dealer Maria Demetriades and fair director Alexis Caniaris. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

AFTER A YEARLONG HIATUS, the eighteenth Art-Athina hit the ground running on the evening of Thursday, May 16, and the former Olympic “Tae Kwon Do” Pavilion was packed with enthusiastic party people. The fair had a more national flavor than ever this year under its new director, Alexis Caniaris, the son of recently deceased artist Vlassis Caniaris, whose iconic modern work has recently found great success on the international market. Of the very few foreign galleries exhibiting, most were Greek-owned. The Breeder gallery was dealing with the perceived drop in the market by selling fantastic multiples by artists like Stelios Faitakis, Jannis Varelas, and Andreas Angelidakis at crisis-appropriate prices. “Nobody wants to come here now, but I have already met three interested billionaire collectors today. And if Greeks like you they introduce you to their billionaire friends,” raved Cologne dealer Mirko Mayer, a seven-time exhibitor. “That is what nobody knows: There are at least one-hundred billionaires collecting here.” Most international collectors were delayed several hours due to a union strike, a de rigueur mode of arrival in contemporary Greece.

In lieu of minimal foreign participation, Greek galleries came out of the woodwork, making the fair an excellent snapshot of the country’s current art production and market. “It is important to support the system by being here,” said dealer Eleni Koroneou. Glaring exceptions were Kappatos Gallery, whose booth was mysteriously empty, and Bernier/Eliades. Getting a bad case of agoraphobia among the swarmed dealer booths, on the main floor, I headed upstairs to check out the forty-six international artist-run “Platforms,” invited by curator Artemis Potamianou to present their projects. Michalis Adamis’s mechanical mice running around the floors were amusing likenesses of the frenetic fairgoers below. Sweden’s Museum of Forgetting showcased work by artists Iman Issa, Daniela Ortiz, and Núria Güell. The latter two focused on immigration issues in compelling videos: In Forcible Drugging to Deport, Ortiz reads the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement while being injected with sedatives used forcibly by US border guards; Humanitarian Aid documents Güell’s interview with a prospective Cuban spouse, who had won the chance to marry her and obtain a Spanish visa by submitting love letters, which were displayed on the wall.

Left: Artist Angelika Vaxevanidou and curator Artemis Potamianou. Right: Artist Manos Tsatiris performing Assault.

It was impossible to miss the exuberant activities of the DaDa Da restaurant, a Greek-Austrian collaboration where artist Albert Mayr was waving a skillet and raving nonsense while Lucas Willmann tenderized pink fillets for Wiener schnitzel. “This is Viennese Actionism light,” quipped critic Sotirios Bahtsetzis. Artist Natasha Papadopoulos added, “But here there are hungry Greeks waiting!” On a table with a rotating Sacher tort by Hélène van Duijne, a sign carried the overwhelming spirit: FUCK ART, LET’S EAT SOUVLAKI. An insistent electronic beat and pulsating light emanated from the next booth, the American College of Greece’s “Athens/Urgent,” while hooded performer Manos Tsatiris stood against the wall with his hands tied, perhaps a metaphor for the current Athenian exigency. “This is not the kind of art fair scene we are used to,” said the Economou Collection’s Annie-Claire Geisinger, watching the madness.

I was lucky enough to escape before the crowds, nevertheless encountering the beginnings of a growing traffic jam at the exit on our way to the Kunsthalle Athena, in the hip and edgy Metaxourgeio quarter. We heard nobody had yet arrived for the party, so we stopped at The Friends taverna to dine among the chilled-out chess players and neighborhood dogs. Around midnight we headed to the opening of “This Must Be the Place,” with shows by Katerina Kana, Petros Touloudis, and Thanos Kyriakides. The decadent atmosphere of the Kunsthalle is inevitably part of the art, and Kyriakides had fashioned striking constructions of black yarn, one a virtual column, throughout the rooms. The party moved from there onto the terrace, where people were huddled in groups under the stars among the sympathetic ruins of past installations.

The fair was pleasantly tranquil the next day, so I started at a panel organized by Marina Fokidis, where Filipa Ramos spoke about UFOs and recreating the feeling of being someplace in a particular moment through contemporary technology, citing the absurdity today of Saint Augustine’s distraction by a little bird outside his writing studio. Next I took in the exhibition “Paradise Lost,” where curator Potamianou had skillfully integrated works of participating galleries. A highlight was Panos Tsagaris’s I Have Carried Away the Darkness by My Strength, the text inscribed in 23kt gold on a digital print of his arm; the haunting coda a beautiful girl passing in a car, in Roderik Henderson’s photograph Cassandra.

Left: Artists Elisabeth Penker, Michela Pelusio, Petros Touloudis, Panos Papadopoulos, and Nino Stelzl. Right: Collector Anne-Marie Ros.

Down on the floor, the dealers seemed pleased, particularly given dismal expectations, having already sold a great deal at the preview. Young Rotterdam-based gallery Joey Ramone had sold sculptures by Fotini Gouseti to English and Belgian collectors; dealer Erik Mulier had also sold some work to Belgians. Marc Van den Hende said he had bought a triptych by Eirene Efstathiou and was considering a Vlassis Caniaris piece from the 1970s. “I saw some surprises—young Greek artists I did not know—and great new galleries, like Elika and CAN,” Dutch collector Anne-Marie Ros said. By the end of the day, Dimitra and Sofia Vamiali reported that they had not seen one Greek collector, although another reported a Dakis Joannou sighting.

That evening at the Cypriot collector’s house, Joannou greeted us only in effigy: a sculpture by Paweł Althamer portraying him as an Indian chief, accompanied by a host of other art stars like Jeff Koons and Massimiliano Gioni caricatured all in white. We then embarked to the DESTE Foundation for a tour of “The System of Objects,” where curator Andreas Angelidakis led us around the labyrinthine gathering of objects raided from Joannou’s closets. It was definitely all about spectacle: like an alter ego of the collector’s house, the incredible array of furniture, artworks, dusty old dolls, and other strange objects were arranged throughout the deconstructed space—meandering into the guts of the building, and allowing different views on various rooms and exposing remnants of previous exhibitions. “This is how I felt the first time I went to Saatchi,” an artist said. “Like I was inside a funhouse.”

We moved on to the northern suburb of Ekali, where collector Nineta Vafeia was hosting a dinner in her stunning and sprawling Modernist villa. The collection, mostly large-scale paintings and photographs, were hung throughout the home and in a dedicated building across from a pool, somehow feeling like both a museum and home at once. A discreet corner in the dining room was dedicated to paintings by the grandmother and photos of the children. “Greek people are so nice,” collector Yannicke De Smedt commented over dinner. “We have been coming for years and have seen some great collections.” After dinner Vafeia relieved the pianist with renditions of “Strangers in the Night” and a tango standard while we lounged on giant cushions. These days there are benefits of a fair being less international and more a reflection of the local milieu. “We are entering an era of post-globalization,” said the Biennial Foundation’s Marieke Van Hal, “and places are trying to define their identities again.”

Left: Artist Thanos Kyriakides and curator Marina Fokidis. Right: Dealer Erik Mulier.

Left: Dealers Dimitra and Sofia Vamiali. Right: Artist Maria Ikonomopoulou.

Left: Biennial Foundation director Marieke Van Hal and curator Filipa Ramos. Right: Collector Nineta Vafeia.

Left: Artist Theo Prodromidis and curator Katerina Nikou. Right: Artists Alexia Turlin and Valentina Pini of Milkshake Agency.

Left: Dealers Hans Bakker and Kiki Petratou. Right: Dealer Angeliki Antonopoulou and artist Yiorgis Yerolymbos.